MANATEE -- The cash-strapped Manatee School District has rejected a $1.1 million offer from a company that wants to build a charter school on 20 acres off Moccasin Wallow Road.
The district declined the offer about the same time that it was entertaining the possibility of selling Miller Elementary School's McKelvey Park to a developer.
Forza Education Management of Clearwater wants to buy the Moccasin Wallow Road property. But in an April 7 letter to the company, Jane A. Dreger, the district's director of capital projects, said the district has already invested more than $1 million in improvements to the property with plans to build a school in the rapidly growing area.
"After reviewing your offer, the District respectfully declines to sell the property at this time," Dreger wrote.
The charter school company has identified several alternative sites where it could build a school on Moccasin Wallow Road, said Chuck S. Malatesta, chief executive officer for Forza.
Superintendent Rick Mills stands by the decision not to sell the Moccasin Wallow Road property, saying Wednesday that the district will have to build a school there in the near future to serve tremendous growth.
An elementary school requires 17 acres, and those large parcels can be expen
sive and hard to come by, Mills said.
"We only get one shot at these large chunks of property," Mills said. He also questioned whether a charter school could build the necessary capacity to adequately serve the area.
While the district does have some excess property that it is trying to sell, the Moccasin Wallow Road land has been "landbanked" with the certainty that a school will have to be built there, Mills said.
With the improvements the school district has already made to the Moccasin Wallow Road property, "it is our easiest site to develop at this point," Dreger told the Herald on Wednesday.
Despite Forza's offer being declined, Malatesta said his company remains interested in the property, and has raised its offer to $1.5 million after learning the district had invested more than $1 million in site improvements. The offer was sent directly to school board members, Malatesta said.
"We would rather pay the school district than a developer for property," Malatesta said Wednesday. "What makes the school board property ideal is that parents could walk their children to school.
"We plan on building a K-8 STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) Charter School and a Child Development Center for children ages 2, 3, and 4 years old," Malatesta told the Herald.
In April, the school board was considering a $1.8 million offer for the three-acre McKelvey Park. But residents angrily argued against selling McKelvey Park at a school board meeting, and at a forum called by Mills. Eventually, Mills said he had heard the will of citizens and was taking the sale off the table for the time being.
The McKelvey property was donated by W.D. Sugg and his wife, Ruth, in 1950.
Developers are planning to build more than 7,000 homes along Moccasin Wallow Road, the Herald has reported.
Bob Zegota, who represented Malatesta in trying to acquire the Moccasin Wallow property, said he was frustrated by his experience with the Manatee School District.
"We were led to believe that there was interest in selling the Moccasin Wallow Road property because the county school board needs funds due to the drastic change in the economy and for other reasons," Zegota wrote in an April 17 email to School Board member Karen Carpenter.
"We have found out since then it was not presented to you and was stonewalled," Zegota wrote.
Carpenter confirmed Wednesday that the board has had no recent discussions on Moccasin Wallow Road.
But she was aware that the property, donated to the district in 2006 by the Ryland Group, developer of Copperstone subdivision, had been "landbanked" for a future school.
The property is about one mile north of the intersection of Erie Road and Martha Road, just west of Parrish.
The Manatee School District has made a major review of properties it owns and has identified lands it will need to retain for new schools, particularly in Lakewood Ranch, Parrish and southwest Manatee where growth is the most intense, Mills said.
The district is also developing a request for proposals to do a comprehensive analysis of all schools to determine which are at capacity, which are under capacity, and the growth areas where schools will need to be built, Mills said.
"This is very analytical," Mills said. "We have to get our heads around it."
Mills has been wrestling with the financial meltdown of the school district since his hiring in early 2013. His predecessor, Tim McGonegal, resigned suddenly in 2012 after it was revealed the district had a budget deficit of about $3.5 million. Mills said the district had overspent its budget by about $13 million in recent years.
On May 2, Mills called a press conference to announce that state and federal auditors had ordered the school district to restore about $7 million in funding that it has misspent in past budgets.
James A. Jones Jr., Herald reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.